Book Review

Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan

B-

Title: Unspoken
Author: Sarah Rees Brennan
Publication Info: Random House 2012
ISBN: 978-0375870415
Genre: Young Adult

Before I start talking about the book, have a look at the US cover and the UK cover for this book. The difference is very thought-provoking: 

Unspoken: A blackline illustration of a girl infront of a menacing curly wrought iron gate against a red background.UK Cover: a gold tinted photo of a young man staring at the reader with an Asian girl whispering in his ear with bare trees in the background

 

I'm still not sure which cover I prefer, but I wish the UK cover were available in the US. And now: my review. 

Kami is a 17 year old girl in a small town in England called Sorry-in-the-Vale who sets up a school newspaper so she can go investigate things. She's incurably nosy. At one point, Kami says of herself that she wants to “discover truth and change the world.” Fortunately for her, circumstances align that allow her to do a lot of both, with painful consequences. Kami has been connected mentally with a boy for as long as she can remember. They can reach out to one another and speak through their thoughts at any time. Kami is never sure if what she experiences is real, or if it's all imaginary, but everyone sort of knows that Kami has this secret friend in her brain and that she'll stare off unfocused into space or laugh at things in a silent moment.   

Kami's town lives in the shadow of a manor called Aurimere, owned by a family named Lynburn who no longer live there, until they suddenly return to town with no explanation. There are all sorts of strange legends and habits in the town that connect the Lynburns to Sorry-in-the-Vale, and Kami begins to suspect that there's something sinister about the Lynburns, the town, and everyone she's known. Kami gets the feeling that people are keeping secrets from her – which the are – and that feeling tends to drive Kami to do some dangerously curious things. She hears screaming in the woods? She's going out into the woods to find out why. She's that kind of character – and while I am not that bravely curious, I loved reading about her fearless determination.

The Lynburn family includes two teenage cousins, Ash and Jared. Jared happens to be the name of the boy Kami can speak with in her mind. Coincidence? Ha. Not at all.

This book is not a romance – be ye warned, romance readers. It's more of a gothic paranormal mystery, complete with odd characters, imposing creepy dark mansions (two of them!), dusty things, running about vulnerable at night (a lot of that), and characters who represent varying forms of innocence. The story also moves from light paranormal to All the Paranormal Woo-Woo You can Shake a Stick At.

There's a moment that heralds the beginning of the woo-woo. The first half is light paranormal – a few mildly weird things, events that could be explained by human action – and then, it went full woo-woo paranormal, with … well, I can't really specify. In the first half, or two thirds, even – there was a possibility that the things that happened which were Not Good were caused by people, ordinary humans, acting in ways that were Not Good. Kami and Jared already have a head start on accepting Strange Woo Woo Things – they can talk to each other telepathically, for example – but their ease and adeptness in handling everything that comes later in the book was sometimes difficult to believe.

Probably because I read more romances than mysteries, Kami and Jared's relationship was much more fascinating for me than the plot itself, especially when it moved so decisively from Gothic Para-Lite to Full On Woo Woo. Kami and Jared can talk to each other psychically any time they want. Their consciousness is connected and they have come up with limits to what they want to share with the other. They set boundaries and mental walls and came up with strategies to preserve some privacy for themselves, even when they know the other person really did want to know everything. They allude, for example, several times to a conversation when they were 14, wherein puberty and the resulting thoughts were so private they agreed such things would be off limits.

Their relationship is incredibly, impossibly intimate but also initially platonic. For one thing, they didn't absolutely believe the other person was real, and wasn't a figment of their own illness or imagination. When they realize the other person is a real person, and they meet and have a terrible first encounter.

They see the actual physical wall between them – their own bodies – and see that there are many other boundaries between them: class, history, and paranormal woo-woo included. They may share conversation in their minds, but they are, without a doubt for either of them, two separate people. Whether they cross the physical boundaries is part of the tension between them.

Jared reacts to Kami as if he would a sibling or twin, even. The thought of her sexually makes him turn away. Kami is also uncertain as to her feelings for Jared now that she knows he's an actual person.

But their intimacy is something that no other relationship could compete with. Even if they dated or had long term relationships with other people, for example, Kami and Jared would still be each other's most important and closest relationship. They're in each other's brains. An outsider can't top that.

One problem I had with the book was repetition of themes. Jared is always hiding something from Kami. She doesn't know what it is. There are walls up and down in their minds. Kami isn't telling Jared everything. He can see that she's withholding information; she can tell he does the same. There are walls. Walls. Hiding. Misunderstandings. Walls. Hiding things. Etc etc. Kami is unsure of how much she wants to reveal and has some control over what she shows and communicates to Jared, and the same seems to be true for him. But Kami also frets over her inability to be alone and private in her own thoughts.

What seems to be the tipping point for both Jared and Kami is Kami's realization that seeing each other in person in the same place PLUS being connected mentally is too much.

The ending is not a HEA. It's not even really an ending. It's a fade to black cliffhanger-esque “That's all for now. Tune in for the next book.” This isn't a surprise given that the title reads 'Volume 1.” It's pretty obvious there'll be a volume 2, though I can't find any mention of it online.

The book ends in such a way that is designed to get you to go look for volume 2. Finding no mention of it left me very frustrated. The ending will not give you happy feelings. It's a messy ending. The mystery of the book is solved and the Big Bad and the accompanying Little Bads are revealed for the most part, and you have the de facto Scooby Gang gathered together ready for the next episode, but there are larger questions created at the end (I know I'm being vague; I'm sorry)

The writing is evocative in a way that relies heavily on color references: gold Costwold stone, blue herons, descriptions that yielded vivid pictures in my mind for the characters to walk through. There's frightening use of dark and light, shadow and sunlight. It's probably not a surprise to many of you that Brennan is an excellent writer; this is the first of her books that I've read, and it was an absorbing experience. I stayed up way too late finishing the book. Alas I didn't sleep all that well, because the ending was not wholly satisfying, mostly because the ending isn't whole yet.

I loved Kami. As a character, I can't tell you enough great things about her. She's lived in Sorry-in-the-Vale her entire life but hasn't ever fully fit in, partially because of how she looks, and partially because she's known to be a little strange, talking to people inside her head. She's part Japanese, and she and her brothers look different, are named differently from other children, and visually and culturally stand apart. Her appearance is a physical boundary of belonging that she's aware of most of the time – and that boundary contrasts with the boundaries (or lack thereof) in her mind between herself and Jared.

Jared is a moody, grumpy, teenage boy who is difficult to understand (mothers of teen boys, does that sound familiar?). Kami understands him because he can't lie to her effectively, but even with their connection she is baffled by him, and easily hurt by his outward behavior when it is at odds with his private demeanor in their shared connection.

I wasn't all that excited or curious about Jared or his cousin Ash, who serves mostly to be a contrast to Jared. Ash is light, Jared is dark; Ash is communicative, Jared is sullen. Ash is outwardly expressive of his interest in Kami; Jared can't bring himself to look at or touch Kami in some situations. The slow building tension between Kami and Jared should have captivated me more – I'm usually a sucker for emotionally complex relationships – but he was so mercurial, so at odds with himself, desperate and begging one minute and distant and sardonic the next, that I had a very difficult time caring much for his emotional ambivalence.

Jared is also an abused child, subjected to horrible treatment from his father and mother, and while I felt empathy for him, I also felt a deep kind of rage that the rest of his family did jack all to help him. The Lynburns, they are a collective of self-absorbed fucked-upped-ness.

Kami is easily the best part of the book. She creates a school paper so she can fulfill her desire for investigative journalism. She's brave, somewhat reckless, and strong and self aware enough to recognize her strengths and weaknesses. She can distinguish (most of the time) between what she wants to be true and what she has learned is the actual truth, and she's able to ask for help. (She's also one of those wonderfully erudite, witty and poised teenagers that none of us remember ever being.) (Also: why has Kami, who is very curious and drawn to investigation, never Googled Jared's name or any of the details she's learned about him to discover if he was real? No idea. )

Her “Scooby gang” of friends includes Angela, who is beautiful, sullen and very lazy, and Holly, who is equally as beautiful, but friendly and flirtatious. (Sorry, there's not a Giles figure). There's a small amount of backstory for each character – as well as Angela's brother, Rusty, who is laconic and smooth, like he's perpetually buzzed on something green, organic, and locally sourced until you see it's very much an act – but there's not quite enough to move Holly, Angela and Rusty from “character with 2 roles to play depending on the scene” to “real other people around the main characters.”

If volume 2 were available right this minute, I'd go read it, just to find out if they're all ok. I don't know if I'll read volume 2 when it comes out (someday? maybe? No idea – and knowing that there's another book possibly scheduled would be helpful when the first volume ends with such an unfinished conclusion) but I'm glad I read volume 1. The combination of Gothic, horror, paranormal woo-woo (no, I'm not tired of saying that. Woo-woo), emotional and psychic conflict, and the questions of intimacy and trust are powerfully explored, and I can think of several readers I'd recommend this book to immediately.


This book is available from Goodreads | Amazon | BN | Sony | Kobo | All Romance eBooks | iBooks.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Maree says:

    I’m intrigued; will have to check this one out. I can highly recommend The Demon’s Lexicon trilogy from Sara Rees Brennan—it’s so not your normal demon story and despite it being a YA, I loved it. So did my daughter, and, surprisingly, my son (first year in high school). He read the series twice, which is unheard of in our household *g*

  2. 2
    Jas says:

    I’m pretty sure the author said somewhere (maybe her tumblr?) that the second book will be published a year after the first. :)

  3. 3
    SB Sarah says:

    Thank you! I must have missed that with my late-night Googling for volume 2!

  4. 4

    I definitely prefer the UK cover. I’ve intended to read Demon’s Lexicon, and now this one sounds great, too.  I’ve got to push Brennan higher up my TBR list.

  5. 5
    Tam says:

    I do prefer the fence cover, but I also like the way that the other cover actually shows an Asian girl – I get a little tired of all these YA paranormal/dystopian books with photos of moony-looking white girls with long hair on the covers as I’m pretty sure that adolescent angst knows no ethnic limits.  And a British East Asian girl growing up in the Cotswolds?  I can’t think of another YA protagonist with that background. 

  6. 6
    katherinelynn_04 says:

    I (surprisingly) like the US cover better! It isn’t very often that we get the better covers, especially YA, in comparison to UK or Australia.

    If you like this book you might enjoy Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl. From your description they have a very similar feel to them. It’s coming out as a movie soon-ish, which looks pretty true to the book.

  7. 7
    Sarina says:

    I read on Brennan’s blog (…I think) that she had personally picked the artist to do the U.S. cover for her work with cutouts and that it was the cover she had dreamed for the book.

  8. 8
    Tam says:

    I do think that the US cover looks like a less-interesting version of the cover of John Connolly’s ‘The Gates’ (awesome horror story for tweens featuring demons and the Large Hadron Collider).  Stick girl instead of small boy, take out demon. 

  9. 9
    Holly says:

    I really loved this book and I think I connected more to Jared than you did, Sarah, but that could be because he’s kind of my type when it comes to YA heroes. Brennan’s YA author friends’ books have similar heroes, Clare’s Jace, Black’s Cassel, etc, and I’m a sucker for them. I think my favorite thing about Unspoken was the dialogue, which frequently made me laugh out loud and quote on Twitter. Will definitely be getting book 2 (along with reading the rest of Brennan’s Demon’s Lexicon trilogy at some point).

  10. 10
    LG says:

    I prefer the fence cover, if only because the couple on the UK cover look old enough that I didn’t immediately realize this was a YA book.

  11. 11
    hapax says:

    I liked this book, but didn’t love it as much as I have SRB’s other books, mostly for the reasons in the review. Also, I found the villains to be far too “MUA-WAH-HAH” moustache-twirly in their motivations than I expect from this author.  Still, I’ll definitely look for the second book in the series.

    I did like the secondary characters MUCH better than you did, Sarah;  I am pleased by one secondary romance in particular (you know the one!), I found Kami’s family delightful, and am semi-swoony about Rusty. 

    As for the covers, I like the US silhouette much better (and the thematic color scheme is supposed to carry through the trilogy, which I think is rather clever.)  The pose of the couple on the UK cover gives a very wrong impression of the *complicated* relationship between Kami and Jared, imo.

  12. 12
    frabjouslinz says:

    This book is the first in a trilogy. That’s relatively normal in fantasy, even in YA fantasy. The publishing world likes to space the books about a year apart in release, unless the author is whiz-bang at getting them written and turned in. The next book is called “Untold,” and should be out in Sept of 13. I loved this book so very, very much. I also read the two short stories she released as well online, which I felt read like prologues. The mystery and magical elements were wonderful for me, but I am a dyed-in-the-wool fantasy reader, so I had no problem with any of that.

  13. 13
    Kate K. F. says:

    I recently read Team Human and loved it. This book is on my to read list as I adored the humor and depth in Team Human. Its a fantastic satire on the teen paranormal romance genre as well as being a good book. It also has an Asian main character who is prominently featured on the cover. I need to read more of her books.

  14. 14
    Ducky says:

    For once I prefer the US cover, the UK cover looks kind of cheesy and teenagery.

    I did read and enjoy Brennan’s The Demon Lexicon – a supernatural YA novel for people like me (I generally don’t like either the YA or the supernatural genre).

  15. 15
    Sarah says:

    SO intrigued. I’ve been wanting to read this for a while, and I’ve been seeing GLOWING reviews, but I know—I just know—that the abrupt ending and relationshipery ambivalence is going to be epically love-hate for me. I kind of don’t care though. I don’t think you could have included more trigger words for me. Especially ‘gothic’. This makes me HAPPY.

    You have a VERY interesting point, re: the covers… yet I have to admit I love the US cover in this case, simply because it’s so different to what we typically see in YA. A gorgeous illustrated cover is a rare thing these days, and something I desperately love seeing (Shadow & Bone by Leigh Bardugo being another wonderful example), but… well… it’s lovely seeing models who LOOK like characters on covers. Incidently, have you seen the cover for Team Human?

     

  16. 16
    Ducky says:

    The US cover is the red one with the Gothic look, yes? That’s the one I like, not the the one with the pretty teens.

    The Demon’s Lexicon, the first book I mean, has a nifty ending which gave me a nice little emotional gut punch because I was too dumb to guess where it was all heading. Sometimes it’s good to be dumb about an ending – that way you get surprised every once in a while.

  17. 17
    Sarah says:

    The US one is the pinkish one on the left, with the illustration, and the girl walking past the gate :D

  18. 18

    This sounds so good and then you said the ending was just there and I’m like no!!!!! Now I’m going to hold back on this one till the second book is out.

  19. 19
    Ros Clarke says:

    I’m with others, I prefer the US one and was surprised when I realised it was that way round.

  20. 20
    willisonm says:

    I’m pretty sure it’s called UNTOLD and it’s only two of three volumes.

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